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Conducting competency based interviews

Planning your job interview: Competency vs behavioural interview questions

Conduct interviews

Competency and behavioural interview questions are some of the most commonly used in job interviews today. While these terms are often used interchangeably, and there is some overlap in the questioning technique, they aim to uncover fundamentally different information.  

So, what is the difference between a behaviour and a competency? To help you understand the differences – and similarities – and pinpoint exactly what you can learn about a candidate’s suitability by asking these questions in a job interview, we’ve broken down these interview concepts, below.  

How are these interview questions similar?

Both types of interview questions usually begin with, “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example of an occasion when…” That’s because both these styles of interview questions are based on the idea that past behaviour can predict future action. In other words, they use a candidate’s previous acts as an indicator of how they are likely to perform in future. They assume that past conduct is a good signal of future performance. 

Your job candidate’s answers will also often follow a similar format. The STAR technique is a common formula that candidates use to frame their answer to behavioural or competency questions. STAR stands for Situation (the candidate describes a situation they were in), Task (they tell you what they decided to do), Action (they describe the action they took) and Result (they tell you what happened as a result of their actions). 

How are these interview questions different?

Behavioural interview questions are asked to understand the way a candidate works and their potential team fit. Competency interview questions are asked to assess the specific skills and knowledge a candidate possesses that are relevant for the job. The former is based on your organisation’s values and way of operating, whereas the latter is based on the key criteria and job description for the specific role you are recruiting. 

What to look out for 

When you ask these questions, look for past experiences that demonstrate whether the candidate has the criteria you’re looking for. Look for concrete examples of the behaviours or skills the candidate is highlighting in each example – are they the behaviours and skills that will lead to success in the role and team? 

If the candidate can’t provide you with actual examples, describe the specific actions they took and quantify their achievements, probe further to ensure they genuinely possess the level of skill or behaviour claimed. A well-prepared candidate who is motivated and enthusiastic about your role will conduct extensive research and study the job description beforehand to ensure they share examples of specific and relevant experiences that demonstrate what you’re looking for. 

Furthermore, behaviours and competencies are quantifiable. By sharing real-life examples, each candidate should be able to also share the measurable outcome of their actions. A failure to do so should act as a red flag. 

Behavioural interview questions

Behavioural interview questions are asked to establish what motivates and drives a candidate, how they think and act, and how they approach their work. The purpose is to determine if a candidate has the character traits required to align with the mission and values of the organisation – and therefore if they would complement the team, or not. 

Behaviours that you could ask about include the candidate’s ability to work as part of a team, innovate, adapt, grow or liaise effectively with clients.

There are no right or wrong answers to behavioural questions. When you ask these questions, you’re asking the candidate to tell you a story of how they did something and why. This allows you to understand why they behave the way they do and if their working style fits in with the organisation’s values and way of operating.

The interviewer should look for examples of past behaviour that demonstrate their working style and personal attributes.  

Examples of behavioural interview questions 

Common behavioural interview questions include:

  • Give an example of when attention to detail was vital and how you completed the task accurately
  • Describe something you have done that was new for your organisation that improved the performance of your team or the value of the work done
  • Give an example of something you tried in your job that didn’t work. How did you learn from it?
  • Tell me about a time you knew you were right, but still had to follow guidelines
  • Talk me through a time when you had to work towards a challenging, ambitious objective
  • Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond for a customer
  • What is your typical way of dealing with conflict? Give me an example of when you have had to use this approach with a difficult customer
  • Give an example of a time when you have been part of a group working toward a specific goal. What was your role in the group?

Competency interview questions 

Competency based interview questions are asked to help you learn about the candidate’s skills and knowledge. They allow you to determine if the candidate has the level of competency required to succeed in the job. 

The competencies you ask about should be tailored to the particular role you are recruiting for, with a focus on the skills required in your company. For example, core competencies could include hard skills such as analytical, financial and technical, or soft skills such as creativity, communication and leadership.

While behavioural based questions have no right or wrong answers, competency based interview questions allow you to assess the skills, expertise and abilities of the candidate and determine if they are at the level of proficiency required to succeed in the role. 

Like behavioural questions, in competency based interviews look for previous demonstrable evidence of the candidate’s technical and soft skills. Then you can determine if the level of their skills and know-how is appropriate for the job. If the candidate is unable to give a specific answer to competency based questions, and instead talks in generalities, probe further. It could be that they don’t have practical experience using a particular skill, so look for a well-rounded answer. 

Examples of competency interview questions 

Common competency interview questions include:

  • Describe a time when you were required to use your analytical skills to make an informed decision
  • Tell me about a time when you used your creativity to solve a problem
  • Describe a time you’ve revealed meaningful insights from a large volume of data 
  • On time pressured assignments, how have you made sure that the job is done within budget?
  • Describe a time when you’ve led a team through a period of change

What about situational questions?  

You may also have heard of situational interview questions. Situational questions are asked to determine a candidate’s approach to a hypothetical scenario and how they are likely to handle it. They are based on specific situations that the candidate is likely to encounter if they are placed into the job. 

Rather than using past real-life actions as an indicator of future behaviour, situational interview questions ask the candidate to describe how they think they might handle a certain situation in future. 

The situations you ask about should be tailored to the particular role you are recruiting for. For example, if problem solving is crucial to success in the role, you could describe a common problem and ask the candidate how they would handle it. The answer will usually be given in general terms, but you can ask the candidate to go into further detail if required. 

Examples of situational interview questions 

Common situational interview questions include:

  • You know that a colleague has made a mistake at work, but as far as you’re aware, only you have spotted it. What do you do?
  • What would you do if a disgruntled customer approached you. How would you solve the matter?
  • An important stakeholder asks you to move forward the deadline on a project. How do you proceed?
  • You are faced with conflicting deadlines. What do you do?
  • You need information from a co-worker to proceed with a time-sensitive task, but they are slow to respond. How do you proceed?

Asking the right questions

Interviews are an important element in the recruitment process. Behavioural, competency and situational interview questions help you determine a candidate’s suitability for the job you are recruiting for. They give you an understanding of each candidate’s experience and approach to work, while providing a fair way to compare the behaviours and skills of multiple candidates. 

For more advice on conducting a job interview, browse our recruitment advice.

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